How Mary, Joseph and Jesus Fucked Up My Love Life
I rode down to see an ex-lover on a train that was really a bus, my face pressing the window as farmland blurred past. Yellow fields and cows, the sky flat and washed silent. The whole way I was hungry for pancakes, not homemade but the starchy, salted version from a boxed mix.
(Pancakes, my mother once said, are for people too cheap to buy cereal.)
This man and I once fucked on the conference room table, in the newsroom where we both worked, on a Sunday when good people fled temples pressing damp hands over lepers’ sores.
(“Jesus, Jesus,” Mary calls from the temple, “where the fuck are you?”)
Afterwards, I wrote an obituary about a woman who was killed by her son and buried beneath his trailer. It was the smell that alerted the neighbors, who alerted the police. They found the son sitting at the kitchen table and eating a ham sandwich.
(Ham and cheese with mayonnaise, that’s what my mother fixed for my lunch each Wednesday. Tuesdays it was peanut butter and Thursdays, egg salad.)
I didn’t eat eggs but I liked to hold them in my palms, round and white and prefect. Sometimes I licked the shells, paper thin but strong, housing membrane and bone, a womb of life. Eggs are sexy, I told him.
(Amen, my lover said, crossing himself and offering his fingers for me to lick.)
Fiction number one:
Because he lived in a studio apartment and because we were no longer lovers, I slept on blankets in his walk-in closet, my back tucked up against the wall, the door slats squeezing in tiny slants of light that fell across my chest. I took off my shirt, my breast bare and free. After he fell asleep, I sneaked to the bathroom and stole things that wouldn’t be missed: soap, shaving cream, a spare blue washcloth.
I packed these in my suitcase, sat at the foot of his bed and listened to his breath. He slept on; he had no idea that I was so close. I could have been invisible, a ghost.
(Ghost, noun, 1. An apparition of a dead person that is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.)
After my father died when I was six, I was afraid to sleep at night, afraid of the long spaces between night and morning, when my body slipped away to places I couldn’t decipher. Anything could happen while I was sleeping. I could fall out of bed, kick my legs until the sheets twisted around my knees. I could die.
My mother was too caught up in her own grief to notice mine and my older sisters hadn’t the energy to deal with my fright. My youngest sister slept easily in the bed across the room, her breath rising and falling. I matched my breaths with her and slowly sank down. But always I jerked myself awake, afraid of what waited at the edge of the darkness.
The only way I could sleep was by imagining bees. I closed my eyes, a swarm of bees swimming behind my eyelids. Their wings humming, their bodies pale yellow. I slowed my breath and followed the slight tap of these wings as they flew out over the fields and beyond the trees to the woods, to spaces where I had never been. I flew over mountains and deserts, oceans and rainforests and the thick, milky sand dunes I had seen once in a “National Geographic” special.
(“Imagine flying through the sky like a bird,” Peter says to Jesus.
“Won’t happen in your lifetime,” Jesus snaps. He’s in a snarly mood, his bad tooth is acting up again. He sighs, as if in apology. “Flying is no big deal,” he says. “You just lift your arms, jump and pray like fucking hell.”)
Fiction number two:
I wear glasses, not because I can’t see, which I can’t, but because I need a filter between myself and the world.
I didn’t like my lover when we first met. I’d hide beneath my desk whenever I saw him walking towards me from across the newsroom. He was too serious. He read old issues of The New Yorker. He wore sandals with socks, for Christ’s sake. One day he invited me to eat dinner with him in the conference room on a Sunday, in the winter darkness. Sitting next to him, the only light a thin ribbon from beneath the door, he forked pasta into my mouth, spicy noodles covered in salted sauce. Onions sharp as an elbow. Croutons biting my back teeth. The cold jab of fork tines against my tongue. Was this a romantic moment? No matter. Sex is a litany regardless of the mood.
(“Imagine Jesus reading The New Yorker,” I said.
My lover laughed, turned the page. I stared at an advertisement for an expensive watch.
“Would he read fiction or poetry?” I asked.
My lover placed his hand on my bare leg, kept reading. I wondered what kind of watch Jesus would wear. A cheap model from the Walmart? One of those fancy sports designs that tracks mileage and interval laps? I imagined him taking off his watch and placing it on the ground before he gets into bed with Mary Magdalene. Afterwards, Mary places the watch around her own, more slender wrist.
“What time is it?” she teases. Jesus lies beside her, sweat drying his forehead. He smiles warily but what he’s really thinking is: it’s too much damned work trying to keep a woman satisfied.)
“The body of Christ,” the priest said, placing that paper-thin wafer in my mouth, his fingers touching my tongue, an intimate act, the first male fingers in my mouth, they tasted of soap and salt.
“Amen,” I whispered, head down but eyes still open. Girls were told to not to look others in the eye, to be humble and submissive, our bodies clean. This, we were told, was the quickest way of finding Jesus, of embracing our holiness.
(Holey-ness: Those annoying holes in the tops of your socks and how, as the day goes on, your toes slowly work their way through, hitting the edge of the material, a frustration you try to ignore and just when you can’t stand it, the first toe breaks free, hallelujah and holey Christ, the relief.)
Once, I stole a quarter from the collection basket, stuffed it down my underpants, that cool metal pressing between my legs until I saw God for the first time, holy Christ, my legs jerking, I thought I was possessed, lying in my bed, darkness suffocating my chest as curls of heat sparked. I was burning in hell. I knew I should stop, but I couldn’t, I kept right on going.
(Bless me, Father, but please don’t make me stop.)
“I think I sinned,” I told my older sister the next morning.
“So?” She didn’t turn.
We had oatmeal for breakfast that day, with canned peaches.
“Don’t forget to wash your face,” my mother said.
At school I hid in the bathroom during recess, my hand in my underpants as I stared down at that odd mound, warm and pink. I was amazed, stunned; I had never so closely examined myself before, not down there.
“Wow,” I whispered, leaning my head against the toilet paper dispenser which, according to the label, had been made in Des Moines, Wisconsin.
I took my ex-lover in my mouth in the publisher’s office, late at night when everyone was gone from the newsroom. All the lights turned out, we groped in the dark, we were the dark.
(You are dark but lovely, oh daughters of Jerusalem.)
Pulling down his pants, the carpet stiff beneath my knees. Kneeling over him, my hair falling his stomach. Small cries from my throat. Salt tastes, smells of musk and sweat. His inner thighs soft and warm and damp.
(For more pliant wash, try Downy fabric softner.)
The first night I went down on a boy the Virgin Mary came to me in a dream, blue robe swirling, feet bare, toes pale and cold. Smells of pine and damp earth, her arms rising, I thought it was to absolve me from sin but she rubbed my back, placed my hand on her belly, not a hint of stretch marks because when you birth a virgin pregnancy there are no reminders, no scars or sores, no lingering doubts.
When I woke up I sat in my dark bedroom, my hands cold and unfamiliar. Outside the window, the dense country night stretched out, no lights, no sounds but the wind and the crickets, tree branches leaning against the opened window as if they longed to come inside.
(Mary Magdalene lines her eyes with kohl until they become dark and smoky. Bracelets jangle her arms, flower blossoms scent her wrists. She polishes her toenails with a stone, rubs olive oil into her shiny hair. Then she waits for Jesus. She waits a long, long time.
“Damn him,” she mutters, and then she smiles at a Roman soldier with a sure and steady gait. She likes a solid build, the smell of musk, the way a man’s hips fold out like a square, so different from her own body. When Jesus finally arrives, he’s two hours late and Mary Magdalene pretends to be asleep.
“Mar-eee,” he sings. He knows he’s in trouble, knows he spent too much time trying to save the poor and heal the sick. “Mar-eeee.”
He places an olive branch against her leg, runs it up her thigh, that cool wood tickle. She smiles, finally, and Jesus’ heart nearly breaks. He knows that for all the ways of telling a truth, there are twice as many ways of telling a lie.)
After my lover left me, I fucked a poet from Colorado, his body tanned and perfect. He was rich and didn’t have to work. We worked, in that hotel bed, sheets white and detergent-soft, and then he read me his poems. The sex was okay but I didn’t like his poems. He was Jewish and so we prayed differently, maybe this is why he was so unmemorable, why I remember not his body or words, only the clean white sheets wrapped around my hip bone, still tanned from the summer sun.
(Sheets: What I thought the choir was saying when they sang “Bringing in the Sheaves,” my young voice rising higher and higher as I thought of my mother’s sheets hanging on the clothesline, the wind puckering them fat and round, I imagined tiny gods lived inside of them, breathing and exhaling.
What the hell is a sheave, anyways?)
After my lover left I fucked a fat man who lived in a large house with a porch overlooking the inlet. Evenings we sat in the summer twilight watching birds move across the sand. I didn’t like this man but the sex was good. The sex was okay but I still didn’t like the man. He was fat; I had to be on top. I slept on the floor so that I wouldn’t have to touch him in my sleep. I couldn’t bear the thought of brushing his skin, I was afraid his fatness would wear off on me, that I’d wake coated with pounds of regret and need.
Each morning I wake coated with pounds of regret and need.
(Mary won’t eat avocados, she’s afraid of putting on weight, afraid of the stubborn girth around her hips that’s refused to leave since childbirth.
“Please don’t,” she says, when Joseph offers her one, peeled and shining chartreuse in the sun.
“It’s for you,” he says, helplessly, because it’s the only thing he knows to offer.
Mary sighs, takes it in her hands. It’s slippery and moist, it reminds her of sex, of the things she does with Joseph in the dark.
“Thank you,” she says, insincerely. After he leaves, she buries it in the dirt, the way she buries all of her sins, all of her regrets, all of the things she’s not allowed to talk about.)
At the end of my visit, my ex-lover walked me to the train station. It was a warm summer night, the grass lush, the sidewalk hot beneath my thin-soled sandals. Our arms brushed but we didn’t touch. He pulled my suitcase, the handle long so that it followed at a distance, like a relative everyone ignores. The suitcase was old and worn. I felt old and worn. We sat in the shade beside a girl with bright pink hair. My soul was bright pink. He touched my hand. We met fifteen years ago, when we were young and beautiful. We were no longer young, but he was still beautiful. I opened my mouth but my tongue failed my words. I was afraid that I would never see him again. I knew I would never see him again. My belly ached with regret, not just mine but his, too.
When the bus came, we didn’t move. We sat pressed together. Our breaths rising, our bare arms touching. His skin so warm. I didn’t know where he left off, where I began. Love is a communion, a paradox: You can drink wine for only so long before you begin to desire milk, sweet juice, the bitter taste of beer.
I got on the bus, stood by the window and watched his face grow smaller and smaller.
By the time we reached the city, I couldn’t remember what color shirt he’d been wearing. I couldn’t remember at all.
(The body of Christ, he whispered.
I opened my mouth, stuck out my tongue.
Say amen, he demanded.
I rolled that amen against my tongue, sucked out the vowels, swallowed those stingy consonants, my chest welcoming this untruth, this sin. This departure.
Imagine Mary Magdalene bent over Jesus. What type of nasty amens do you think they whispered together?)
I live with someone else now. We have a house, a dog. A cat. We eat the same foods, share the same socks. Such intimacies define us. Sometimes, when I wake in the dark and open my eyes, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I am at all.
(“Who am I?” Mary asks the donkey, because there’s no one else around and the donkey is good company, steadfast and quiet, and it pulls back its ears when it hears her voice, follows her around the yard nudging her back with its hard and curious nose. Joseph used to place his hand on her back, a solid weight, a testimony of faith: I’ll catch you if you fall.
Mary falls all the time now. She falls on her knees and on her ass. No one catches her. No one witnesses these falls but the donkey.)
Cinthia Ritchie is an Alaska writer, ultra-runner and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Find her work at New York Times Magazine, Evening Street Review, Sport Literate, Rattle, Best American Sports Writing, Mary, Into the Void, Clementine Unbound, Deaf Poets Society, Forgotten Women anthology, Nasty Women anthology and others. She's a 2013 Best American Essay notable mention, and her first novel Dolls Behaving Badly was published by Hachette Book Group.